Sunday, November 24, 2013

In Everything, Give Thanks

I did not draw this particular turkey. If I had, it would be worse.
I love Thanksgiving. The three things I love the most are all combined into one day: Family, Food, and Football! I sit around with my loved ones, gorging myself on things that I rarely get all year long such as homemade mashed potatoes and gravy along with a juicy, delicious turkey filled with delightful triptophan that will make me snooze later in front of the TV watching overpaid men tackle each other because of a little brown oblong ball.

But I didn't always love Thanksgiving. There are some stigmas attached for me. First, let me tell you about the Terrible Turkeys. I seem to be the only child in my family that didn't receive any artistic ability. I can sing and I can write and I can act. But I cannot, for the life of me, draw, sculpt, paint, or even draw a recognizable stick figure. My little sister can draw intricate designs, cartoons, anime, tattoos. My older sister can draw Disney characters. My brother has his own sign company so he works with computers and art every day, and used to draw and sketch cartoons all the time when we were younger. Me? I can't even trace my hand properly to make a picture of a turkey. Seriously. My Terrible Turkeys are a joke that runs rampant through every Thanksgiving get-together. One year, my mom pulled out all the turkeys my little sister and I had made throughout elementary school. Hers were a beautiful progression of how her art had improved. Mine, you couldn't tell the kindergarten turkey from the fifth grade turkey. No kidding.

But after fifth grade, I was no longer forced to draw turkeys. I changed from a public school to a parochial school during my middle school years so, instead of the embarrassment of failing to draw something that resembled plumage each year, I was introduced to my new Thanksgiving duty: praying at the meal. My parents figured that, since I was going to church school now and we prayed at lunch each day, it would be a good test of my public speaking skills and my ability to form a coherent thought to give the prayer before our Thanksgiving meal. This also saved my mom from doing it, since she's never been one for public speaking. So I would pray. I was nervous every time, but I wanted my parents to be happy and, more importantly, I wanted to sit down and chow down. I felt so great once it was over and I could reward myself with tasty, tasty food joy.

Flash forward to college. Still the designated pray-er at holiday meals, I was in the midst of my struggle with belief. Already questioning and doubting, I recall one Thanksgiving I came home to be with the family and to say grace and pig out. As I asked the blessing, I specifically said, "Please bless our family and those who are not able to be with us today, and keep them safe until we see them again." As we sat down to eat, not five minutes later, the phone rang. My uncle had been in a horrible accident, and we finished the rest of our meal in quick concern, jumped in our respective vehicles, and drove to Wisconsin to see him -- but it turned out, he never regained consciousness and our trek wasn't as much to see him as it was to whisper our goodbyes.

I felt like God had ignored me. No, more than that -- I felt like God had slapped me in the face. If He was even there to begin with. I didn't pray out loud again for a decade. And that was because I didn't pray in private for a decade, either. If He was going to ignore me, I was going to ignore him.

The Journey of those ten years of my life is a long, intricate story for another time, but it has a happy ending, I assure you. It's the reason I'm writing this today. It's the reason I do everything I do. Yes, I came to believe again, but in a completely different manner. In doing research this week to speak at a church for their Thanksgiving services at the last minute because their scheduled pastor had to drop out, I found out some really interesting things from the book of Psalms which, traditionally, has not been my favorite book -- but this year, I've been delving into it in a different way than just my usual perfunctory skim.

I have the Amplified version of the bible this year [I get a different one each year], but I found out that, at least in the King James Version, the phrase 'thanks' or 'give thanks' occurs 73 times. Most of those are in the book of Psalms. If you pick up a bible, any bible, and put your finger directly in the middle of the book, you'll find the book of Psalms. That used to be a neat piece of trivia for me, but it makes perfect sense and I don't believe it's a coincidence. The Psalms are full of the strong emotions of human beings. Great joy on the mountaintop highs of life. Desperate seeking, longing, crying out for God in the valleys. Betrayal by other humans, feeling like God is ignoring us, facing the storms knowing that He is our only refuge regardless of whether or not we 'feel' His presence. And that's the truth, that's the crux right there: God is with us, always. 1 Thes. 5:18 says "In everything, give thanks." It's easy to give thanks on a mountaintop. The trick is to be able to give thanks in the valley, too.

I took a look at some songs I've heard the last few years on the radio and it occurs to me that Psalms aren't just in the book. They're available to us, too. These particular songs echo the same sentiments as I felt during those darkest times of my life, and I'm sure you've felt this way too, from time to time. I'll just put a few of the lyrics from each here, but a link to the whole song if you'd like to take a look yourself.

Blessings by Laura Story
What if Your blessings come through raindrops? What if Your healing comes through tears? What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You're near?

Never Alone by Barlow Girl
I cry out with no reply and I can't feel You by my side, so I'll hold tight to what I know: You're here, and I'm never alone.

Hold My Heart by Tenth Avenue North
So many questions without answers; Your promises remain. I can't see, but I'll take my chances to hear You call my name.

The thing is, we're NOT alone. We may feel that way from time to time, or even often. But no matter how bereft we are of money, friends, home, or health, God is always right by our side. The Psalms are full of themes that echo His grace, His mercy, His loving kindness, the fact that He hears us. At least three different Psalms begin with, "Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good -- His love endures forever!" We might look at other people's lives and think they have everything, and feel hurt or lost or jealous. We may even feel covetous as though we're living right and have little, and other people are living the wrong way and have all kinds of things we don't. The bible addresses this, too. Psalm 37:16 says, "Better is the little that the righteous have than the abundance of many who are wrong and wicked." This is not the life we will have forever. This is not the home we are meant for. Until that time, we need to remember that "it is a good thing, a delightful thing, to give thanks." (Psalms 92:1,2).

So, this Thanksgiving, whether we are surrounded by friends and family and food and we can, indeed, 'Taste and see that the Lord is good' (Psalm 34:8), or whether we are alone and without a feast, we can remember this:

"Because Your loving kindness is better than life, my lips shall praise You. So will I bless You while I live; I will lift up my hands in Your name. My whole being shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness, and my mouth shall praise you with joyful lips." (Psalm 63:3-5)

HE is our nourishment.
HE is our blessing.
HE is our greatest gift, even if we have nothing else.

Be thankful for sight, hearing, taste, food, family, football, marriage, health, safety, and a home. But if you have none of these things, be thankful anyway because God will never leave us, never harm us, never let us be alone, never stop loving us, and never give up on us.

That is all we need to be truly thankful.

Stephanie Jean

Monday, November 11, 2013

My Crazy Life -- A Recap

Yes, the footblogs will resume. I'm just taking a hiatus. No, it's not because we lost AGAIN. (Yes, it's because we lost AGAIN. *grumble*) But I promise, I'll finish out the series.

Here's the latest and greatest on what's happening in the life of a simple Middlebury gal, in no particular order:

1. Working four days a week at the local video shop.

2. Cleaning houses and doing housecleaning estimates, taking on new clients, with my best friend and ministry partner as often as possible.

3. Writing and editing for two different magazines as well as updating the online calendar and creating and sending the weekly e-newsletter for one of said magazines.

4. Working on a budget for the cloth diaper ministry's first class: a three-month project, and looking to find an umbrella non-profit organization to absorb us for now until we can either file papers on our own or find a permanent umbrella non-profit to call home.

5. Doing the final background work needed to direct the upcoming musical 'Company'which auditions in December at Elkhart Civic Theatre and goes up in March.

6. Awaiting news on a grant for our cloth diaper ministry project from The Pollination Project.

7. Doing 'dog maintenance' -- the husky who recently has been suffering from a staph infection looks to be cleared up, but making sure she doesn't scratch because of dry skin or any new flea infestation is a full-time job in itself. Just this morning I melted coconut oil and massaged it into her skin. Yes, you read that correctly. No, she did not tip me.

8. Making my own laundry and dishwasher detergent as well as baking my own bread, making homemade macaroni and cheese, and other from-scratch recipes as often as possible.

9. Gearing up for Christmas and planning some inexpensive homemade gifts for my loved ones to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas instead of the commercialism that runs so rampant this time of year. Yes, I'm poor.

10. Celebrating my husband's successes at school -- he was chosen to give his speech on Speech Night (only 20 out of 500 students are chosen) and he was recognized at a Scholarship Recognition ceremony yesterday.

It's a crazy, full, time-consuming schedule but there are so many perks. I get to grocery shop and watch movies with my daughter while my husband does homework, so we get girl time. I get to chat online with my sister while I'm at the video store, so we get sister time. I get to snuggle with my puppies and husband late at night when he finally emerges from the office to have some downtime and we can watch The Walking Dead or American Horror Story. I get to talk to my mom or dad (or both!) every day and catch up. I have the satisfaction of not being at a job I hate, of being surrounded by the people I love the most, and of serving my God in every way I can.

What could be better?

-Stephanie Jean

Monday, November 4, 2013

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

"It was a dark and stormy night..." Ah, Snoopy! My inspiration! As a writer, I often giggle harder than I probably should at his constant use of this phrase as an opener. That's because he never failed to write, which I often do. So, if I have to open with "It was a dark and stormy night...", then that's exactly what I'll do.

The problem is, as Snoopy found, even the greatest of opening lines has to have something to follow it. I don't have a tried-and-true second line, so now I have to think.

There have been a lot of changes in my life over the past year and, while some of them seemed frightening at the time, all of them have led me to be where I am in this very moment: peaceful.

At the beginning of the year, I was troubled at my place of employment and struggling with the dilemma of whether to stay and continue being uncomfortable in my own skin or to leave and be financially in danger. I took seeing my family for granted, as something that I could do 'when I had time'. I often expressed bitterness, resentment, and, at times, downright hatred for a few select people in my life and when I wasn't expressing it, I certainly was feeling it in my heart. As much as I loved God and always knew to put Him first in my life, I was paying little attention to my own advice, and was trying to muscle around His plan to create some sort of amalgamation of His plan WITH my plan. That never works, just FYI.

In May, I almost lost my little sister. It put everything into perspective. It taught me (rather, reminded me) to seek God first and everything else would fall into place. In my growing relationship with Him, He gave me the courage to do what I knew in my heart to be right: leave my current place of employment and trust Him to provide for us. After making God my first priority, my family was next, and I dropped everything else in my life to be with them. Nearly all of my relationships have done nothing but thrive since that point and, while I still have negative feelings from time to time toward certain people, I don't dwell on them. I turn them around into what I think God must feel toward those people. I have learned that loving God means loving others. It's my job to be His hands and feet. His arms are not closed off, and His face is not hateful. His heart is not hard, and His lips don't spout negativity.

My life has changed dramatically and I'm telling you that yours can, too.

Isaiah 43:2 says that even though we walk through the fire, it won't harm us, because He's taking care of us. He doesn't say there will be no fire, just to trust Him to get us through it. Every trial we face is honing us to be the person He meant for us to be. It's our faith in His ability to get us through that matters, not in our own abilities. He's shaped us to be who we are, and the first thing we are? Children of God.

"It was a dark and stormy night..." but now it's not, because I'm basking in God's light. Give it a shot. You won't be disappointed.

Stephanie Jean